History - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityAustralian animalsCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other CountriesAustralian Prehistory


Australian Environmental Issues

Blue-tongue
A true-blue battler

Box jellyfish
How to avoid the stings and what to do if stung

Crocodile
So you wrestle crocs...

Dingo
Unfairly judged in killing off the thylacine?

Echidna
The wise little gnomes of Australia

Emu
Victors of the great Emu war

Flies
Shaping everything from how Australians speak to how they salute

Funnel Web spider
Yyou'll never leave your ugg boots outside

Kangaroo
Most herbivores don't grow a spine until they are the size of an elephant. Not so the roo.

Snakes
Kill less people than cows

Shark attack Australia
How to ensure you don't go by the name of Bob

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Wombat
Keg of muscle

Quoll
The mainland's largest marsupial carnevore

Mythical creatures
Yowies and dropbears; some say they are myths but those who are not afraid to talk have shared their stories

 

 

Email

 

 

 

cdead carp

What does it mean to protect the environment ?

Protecting the environment is one of those mantras that is often proudly voiced without consideration as to what is actually means. For example, a biodiverse ecosystem that is adaptive to change is not the same as a sustainable ecosystem where humans intervene whenever valued species start fluctuating. Amongst Australian government bureaucracies, a "pure" ecosystem "preserved" by humans is the most common conception of protecting the environment. After elevating themselves as masters of the ecosystems, history is selectively read to define "wilderness", which in turn governs which species can live or die. Such definitions and ideologies can be seen in the words of Dr A. J. Brown, from Griffith Law School:

"Today, for environment groups and land management agencies, wilderness is a land use classification which relates specifically to growing respect for the non-commercial, non-industrial, non-colonial values of those landscapes that have been least disturbed since 1788. Most recently, the Commonwealth Government discussion paper on wilderness protection defined a wilderness as:
"... an area that is, or can be restored to be, a sufficient size to enable the long-term protection of its natural systems and biological diversity; substantially undisturbed by colonial and modern technological society; and remote at its core from points of mechanised access and other evidence of colonial and modern technological society. " (1)

The policy is racist as it defines Aborigines as animals in a different category to modern humans. In truth, the ecosystems of 1788 were as much human creations as golf courses are today. Disregarding the racism, the definition makes it very difficult for contemporary humans to have a symbiotic relationship with the environment or individual species in an ecosystem- as did the pre-1788 humans. Instead, there is almost a sense that contemporary adherents are at war with the environment. What starts as a need to kill ferals escalates to a need to kill natives - and all without considering an entire ecosystem's response and the human's place within it.

Killing without consideration of consequences

In what is a classic case of being unable to see the forest for the the trees, when an “invasive” species enters  “wilderness”, the immediate response of many who define themselves as environmentalists is to kill it. This is done without any consideration of whether the invasive species threatens the existence of natives or is merely increasing biodiversity by adding something different to the ecosystem. Likewise, there is little consideration of whether trying to kill the species will have unintended consequences as a result of ecosystem already adapting. In 2009 Arko Lucieer, from the University of Tasmania, noted that few Australian scientists ever considered the ecosystem's response when devising their kill-feral programs:

"Our findings show that it’s important for scientists to study the whole ecosystem before doing eradication programs...There haven’t been a lot of programs that take the entire system into account. You need to go into scenario mode: ‘If we kill this animal, what other consequences are there going to be?" (2)

Kill-feral programs rarely consider food webs or the entire ecosystem when deciding to kill ferals. On the left is a picture of Macquarie Island when it still had around 500 cats that had been keeping rabbits under control for almost 100 years. On the right, is what happened after the cats were removed. Scientists had been so focused on killing cats that they didn't consider what would happen if cats were removed.

Although considering the welfare of he entire ecosystem might seem like common sense, as stated by Lucieer, it just rarely happens. Killing “invasive ferals” has almost become a kind of patriotic rallying cry so that the fact a species is feral is justification enough. Ironically, defining a species as feral is not always clear cut. For example, the dingo did most of its evolution in Asia but has been in Asia for around 4000 years. Is it a feral or native? How about if a dingo pack has been cross bred with about 5% Alsatian?  It may still serve the same ecological role of the dingo, but the mongrel will be killed because it is no longer pure. This killing will help preserve the dingo’s membership but it will not help the ecosystem.

The killing of rabbits via viruses, baiting and warren ripping is perhaps the best example of killing without consideration of consequence to other species. Arguably, the killing has been the single most determining factor for mainland Australia having 59 mammals at risk of immediate extinction and 18 mammals going extinct in the last 100 years.

Myxomatosis has probably had the most collateral damage in regards to the rabbit control methods. The virus was first released in the Murray Valley in 1950 and originally killed up to 99 per cent of infected rabbits. Over the following decades, myxomatosis was spread Australia wide and likewise achieved impressive kill rates. While the virus was great for improving agricultural output in farming communities, for native ecosystems, the rapid removal of the rabbit caused massive problems in the ecological balance. Large populations of rabbits were sustaining large populations of native birds of prey, dingoes, quolls and goannas. They were also sustaining large numbers of introduced predators such as foxes and cats. When rabbit populations rapidly crashed due to a myxomatosis outbreak, there was a lag between the decline in rabbit numbers and the decline in predator numbers that were required for a return to an ecological balance. For example, cat populations will take at least four months to adapt to the crash in rabbit numbers. It this four-month lag, alternative species (such as bilbies, bogals and marsupial mice) were most vulnerable to what has been termed hyper-predation. In short, large numbers of birds of prey, quolls, goannas, foxes and cats hunted the very few marsupials in the area before dying of starvation themselves. With time, the rabbits that did not die produced a high level of antibodies and subsequently passed these antibodies on to the kittens. Whereas the kill rate was once 99 per cent, now it has declined to an overall rate of around 50 per cent and some rabbit populations are completely immune. Ironically, as rabbits returned to their old stomping grounds, they found the ecosystem infinitely more desirable than the one that they had left. With less predators than there were previously, and few small mammalian competitors, they were able to breed unchecked, and reach plague populations again. Because foxes and cats breed relatively quickly, their numbers were also able to rebound once rabbit numbers rebounded thus making it difficult for quolls and goannas to make a comeback as well. In other words, the introduction of myxomatosis contributed to the removal of small marsupials as well as the almost complete domination of cats, foxes and rabbits in the ecosystem. While the release of the virus could be justified in regards to increasing agricultural output, it was terrible for biodiversity. In areas where the ecosystem is largely left alone, rabbits are not a problem. On Kangaroo Island, they have even been eaten to local extinction by the goanna.

Shaping the economic relationship with the land

The definition of wilderness is somewhat Marxist as it opposes commercialisation of the land. This opposition to commercial practices puts restrictions on who can engage with the land and the type of economic relationship that they can have. In short, it limits the economic relationship to funding people who will kill the ferals that are deemed to have no right to exist, funding people to cull the natives that are deemed to be out of control, funding people to burn the landscape because it is deemed to be in need of burning and funding people to decide which species have a right to exist and where. The money for these economic activities comes from government. This in turn sets up a conflict between those who are funded by government with tourism operators, farmers, miners and fishers who want a different economic relationship with the land. It also sets up a conflict with native title owners that want to have an economic relationship with the land that is different from their hunter gatherer ancestors. As explained by Richie Ahmat, chairman of the Cape York Land Council:

"Wilder nullius, which is a vision that TWS (The Wilderness Society) has for indigenous homelands across northern and remote Australia, allows for black people in the landscape but in a highly restricted form. These blacks are not supposed to engage in any form of wealth creation or development. They are only allowed to pursue traditional activities. They are to eschew employment or consumption, and not participate in or be in favour of any form of industry.
If the blacks abide by the role envisioned for them, then TWS will arrange for the environmental agencies of government to provide funding programs for them to be employed as rangers and so on. If they step outside of this role, then TWS will get the government to stop the funding. Only compliance to the TWS vision of wilder nullius will receive support." (4)

A "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island was one one of the more high profile examples of the conflicts between funded scientists motivated by funding and commercial operators motivated by making money via appreciation for the ecosystem. Koalas were not on the island in 1788 (but may have been thousands of years earlier.) They were introduced along with other natives in the 1930s with the aim of Kangaroo Island becoming a wildlife refuge for animals threatened on the mainland. The plan worked so well that Kangaroo Island became the best place to see Australian wildlife today. Koalas proved to be a particular drawcard and by the 1990s, were helping to attract more than 140,000 tourists to the island each year. Despite wildlife thriving and the tourists flooding in, because the koala had been introduced by humans, some scientists felt it was not endemic to the island and therefore it was infringing upon the rights of the gum trees. In the words of David Paton, an environmental scientist from the University of Adelaide:

"You are going to cause major problems for other species -- other species that are endemic to the island. Those things have a right, a greater right, to be here than koalas." (5)

In response to the likes of Paton, between 1997 and 2005 the government paid for the sterilisation of 3,400 adult koalas and relocated a further 1,000. Each sterilisation cost around $140. Some scientists wanted the koalas shot but tourism operators protested. Ironically, the moral arguments about rights became irrelevent in 2019/20 when half the island was burnt in a bushfire, killing half the koalas population and gum trees alike. While environmental scientists discriminated, fire did not.

"Preserving" the bush with fire

In past generations, heated cultural battles culminated with many of Australia’s eucalypt forests being locked up as national parks. Although commercial operations such as logging and grazing were banned, money was still to be made from culling kangaroos, killing ferals and setting the bush alight. Ironically, after heated battles to protect the bush from logging and grazing, the national parks inevitably go up in flames due to periodic burning to reduce fuel loads or in uncontrolled bushfires. In the 2019/20 summer, uncontrolled bushfires that started in national parks burnt up to 200 million square kilometres of Australia, killed up to a billion animals, destroyed around 3,000 homes and killed 35 people. Whatever threats commericial operations presented to the national parks, they were insignificant compared to what fire did.

For the last 70 years, the general response to bushfires is to fund fuel reduction burns. The one positive of funding for fuel load reduction is that it partially acknowledges that humans had a role in Australian ecosystems for 50,000 years. Specifically, it aims to have land care managers serve the ecological role of past humans who made great use of fire. Unfortunately, trying to have a few hundred landcare managers serve the ecological role of up to 1,000,000 nomadic humans burning 365 days of the year is like introducing crocodiles to serve the ecological role of blue tongue lizards. Pre-colonial humans used fire to clear trees for grasslands. They used fire to cook food and for warmth. They used it to herd kangaroos towards spears. They used it to burn grass tussocks so that green shoots would act as bait to attract animals to the area. They used it to make walking through vegetation easier. Such was the use of fire, Australian landscape was constantly burning. In some ways, the use of fire created a symbiotic relationship between eucalypts and humans. The eucalypts facilitated the humans’ lifestyle that was based around fire and the fire helped eucalypts gain ascendency over other plant species. In contrast, landcare managers burn the bush to earn a salary, make bushfires less severe and to re-create 1788 ecosystems. It results in a completely different method of burning, timing of burning and area being burnt.

Now that human lifestyle has changed, there is no longer a symbiotic relationship and bushfires have progressively worsened. Since 1939, there have been 57 formal public inquiries, reviews and royal commissions related to bushfires and fire management. (6) None were effective in mitigating the severity of the 2019/20 bushfires. A vision embedded in the 2009 royal commission perhaps best explains why royal commissions have been so ineffective for so long. Specifically, the 2009 royal commission was embedded with the vision of appreciating

“the role fire plays in maintaining and enhancing biodiversity.” (6 )

Embedding a royal commission with a vision supporting fires while advocating solutions to stop them was like a royal commission into institutional rape being embedded with a vision that rape is desirable while trying to create solutions to stop it. It just can't make effective solutions to prevent bushfire when people want to see the bush burn. This conflict between those who want to stop fires and those who want to see it burn inevitably leads to a compromise that sees a target of up to 5% of the bush being burnt each year to reduce the fuel load under the guise that biodiversity and native forests are also being maintained. In the five years leading up to the 2019 bushfires, 1,000 controlled burns were lit in New South Wales’s national parks to clear more than 1.5 million acres of dead vegetation. All this did was maintain 1.5 million acres as dry bushfire prone eucalypt forests. Much of the 5% that was intentionally burnt months merely burnt again along with much of the 95% that wasn't.

The most diverse and abundant numbers of native wildlife are found in backyards that have mix of exotic and native plants. It is relatively common to see possums, bogals, blue tongues, snakes and birds. In contrast, many national parks have eucalypt trees and not much else. Given there is no shortage of eucalypts in Australia, it certainly can't be said such parks are a refuge of biodiversity. If anything, many are just national fire hazards.

Rather than hold onto past human's use of fire in the landscape, arguably it would be far better to hold onto a form of environmental management that was economic and symbiotic. Naturally, since humans are no longer nomadic, different types of management need to be imagined for a symbiotic relationship to exist. Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth but geographically, it could be one of the wettest. Most of its rivers flow inland, it's east-coast mountain range is high enough to cause orographic precipitation but not too high to prevent moist air passing over it to inland areas. Finally, Australia is situated in favourable latitudes for warm ocean currents that lead to evaporation and rainfall. When humans first arrived in Australia around 50,000 years ago, Australia had deep inland lakes fed by continually flowing rivers. It had rainforests covering much of the landscape that had lasted for 100 million years. It had huge predators including a seven-metre long lizard, a lion-sized marsupial that leapt out of trees as well as the thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger) and the Tasmanian devil roaming the mainland. In addition, it had large leaf eating herbivores that included a three-metre tall kangaroo and a wombat-type animal that was bigger than a rhino. The whole ecosystem changed due to the use of fire in hunting by the newly arrived humans. Eucalypts became dominant over other vegetation such as huon pine, myrtle, beech, bunya, cupressaceae and woolomi pine which can’t cope or recover from fire as effectively as eucalypts. This also effected the climate as water went up in flames, transpiration was reduced and the annual monsoon over central Australia failed. As stated in the Future Eaters:

"Rainforests are killed by fire, but the Eucalypts had evolved in the fire prone areas, and they thrived on it. In an unholy alliance with fire, the eucalypts spread across the continent - destroying the original forests, creating the Australian landscape we know today.
I think the triumph of the eucalypts was to change, even the climate of the continent. The original forests had acted like a sponge - storing huge quantities of moisture, and transpiring it back into the atmosphere. This allowed the monsoon rains to penetrate hundreds of kilometres south. The rains fed a permanent river system, that flowed inland - filling the lakes at the heart of the continent."

A wetter, less bushfire prone environment could be created if humans were once again able to see a role for themselves in the ecosystem. Such a role would have to include an economic interest that leads to symbiotic relationships. This would require a change of identity from that of a disconnected warden that feels it is master of the ecosystem but not part of it. This could include forestry for timber products that are less fire prone. It could include grazing to reduce the build up of long grass. It could include arboretums that double as fire breaks. It could include national parks for camping, tourism, walking, fishing, climbing. The ecosystems that would be created would not like they were in 1788 but they could still have a place for all the flora and fauna of 1788. Just as Australian ecosystems have adapted for tens of millions of years, native flora and fauna would simply adapt again. Furthermore, just as humans adapted their economic relationship with the land from 50,000 years ago to 1788, they would adapt it again.

 

Australian megafauna

For tens of millions of years, the Australian continent had sufficient edible plants to support the evolution of huge Sthenurine Kangaroo and Diprotodon. The plants and animals were lost after humans started burning the landscape.

Non-eucalypt species Australia

Native timbers Australia (not eucalypt)

Although they are small in number, a few non-eucalypt species have managed to hold on as eucalypts have benefitted from fire to dominate the ecosystem. Some examples include deciduous beech (tanglefoot), antarctic beech, myrtle, huon pine, wollemi pine, bunya pine, and athrotaxis cupressoides. Many are endangered. It is ironic to equate fire with biodiversity when the eucalypt genera dominates other plant species in Australia like no other genera dominates anywhere else on earth. Eucalypts encourage moncultures, not biodiversity.

Conclusion: the failure to even achieve its own stated intentions

What constitutes protecting the environment is subjective. Unfortunately, “environmentalists” trying to create “pure” ecosystems managed by environmental scientists being paid to kill ferals and burn the landscape are in fact creating highly artificial ecosystems that are less adaptable and less biodiverse that many people’s backyard gardens. Unfortunately, they are also pushing many mammal and some plant species to extinction. These "wilderness" areas experiencing a decline in mammal activity include the world heritage listed Kakadu National Park. From 1990 to 2010, there had been a 71 percent decline in the total number of animals in the park and almost half the area of the national park no longer had any native mammals at all. (7) Although the definitions of environmental protection may vary from person to person, there is no definition that advocates the extinction of the very species that it claims to protect. At best, they have designed poor methods to achieve their aims. At worst, their vision reflects a poor sense of morality and a stunted connection to the land.

 

1) http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AboriginalLB/1992/31.html

2) ELIZABETH SVOBODA February 16, 2009
The Unintended Consequences of Changing Nature’s Balance http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/science/17isla.html?_r=0

3) Sally Pryor, January 26 2013, A Majestic Folly Soars Canberra Times  http://www.canberratimes.com.au/act-news/a-majestic-folly-soars-20130125-2dcn8.html#ixzz2JJjvxNpA

4) Greenies use ‘wilder nullius’ to get their way in Cape York https://tasmaniantimes.com/2010/05/greenies-use-wilder-nullius-to-get-their-way-in-cape-york/

5)SA shies away from koala cull, Australian Broadcasting Corporation http://www.abc.net.au/7.30/content/2004/s1081674.htm Broadcast: 05/04/2004

6) Kevin Tolhurst, We have already had countless bushfire inquiries. What good will it do to have another? https://mobile.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-16/we-do-not-need-bushfire-royal-commission-this-is-why/11870824?pfmredir=sm

7) https://www.naturalresources.sa.gov.au/samurraydarlingbasin/publications/bushfire-recovery-and-biodiversity

8) Ben Cubby, 20 years left: mammals plunge into extinction September 2, 2010, Sydney Morning Herald http://www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/20-years-left-mammals-plunge-into-extinction-20100901-14nmz.html

 

 

Invasive ferals

Carp

Carp and Trout
A tale of two ferals

New hope for Cane Toads
The many unknown predators of the toad

Rabbits
A fence almost 2,000 km long to keep rabbits out of WA? Sounds like a great idea! If it doesn't work, we'll build another one!

The Willow
How a change in its status from asset to weed led to fish kills with blackwater and blue-green algae outbreaks

To bait dingos?
Should the health of the ecosystem be considered or just the kennel club registration?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

Cat
Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Environmental values

Environmental problems
How money and ideology shapes environmental "science."

Bushfire
Australia's Stockholm Syndrome with gum trees.

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Climate change in Australia
Australia was once covered in rainforest. Could it be again?

Sustainability
The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?

 

 

       

Australian environmental science is defined by an ideology that is not unlike a prison warden. There, the scientists are not seeing themselves as part of the ecosystem, but as masters over it; protecting the rights of the species that they say have rights and killing those that they say do not…but inevitably killing both.

"It was always seen as desirable to remove or cull the introduced species. We also need to ask whether it was possible to do so, how it should be done, whether it could have unintended consequences and what it would cost? I don't think anyone really asked those questions." Physicist John Reid - 2012